One student, one teacher, 1500 miles

A year ago a former student of mine told me her son’s piano teacher had quit, and she was having a difficult time finding a suitable instructor for her son. When we talked the second time and she was not having any success finding a teacher, I asked her if she wanted me to teach him via Skype until she found another instructor (they live in the Midwest; I live in Southern California). I was curious to see how this format would work, and my hope was that I would no musical harm to her son.

The experience has been fascinating and rewarding. It has also—for this teacher—been educational. Below are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. Organization is crucial. Because we are in different locations, I can’t grab a music book off my shelf at the last minute to let him borrow for one or two weeks. I not only need to be thinking ahead three or four weeks; I must notify the parents what materials to purchase. Obviously, the parents must also follow through.

2. My language must be precise. I didn’t realize how much I depended on pointing to the music score, getting the next book ready, etc. When the teacher and student are in two different states, instructions must be specific and clear. I’ve learned to be more consistent with the order of instructions: which book, then which page or which system, then which measure, then which beat.

3. My demonstrations need more clarity and exaggeration. Because I and the students do not have Internet MIDI, my musical demonstrations are more effective if I make large contrasts in different dynamics, articulations, etc. This has an advantage for the student as well: if his dynamics are effective through my computer, he is probably achieving them at home.

I believe this student is getting an effective musical education using this delivery mode. It is not as ideal as seeing him face-to-face each week, but he is progressing and playing musically. There are advantages for the parents: no transportation, no babysitters needed for siblings, and the lesson time only consists of the lesson—no travel time.

When I taught this student’s mother thirty years ago, I never dreamed I would be able to teach her future son from 1500 miles away. What a great time to be alive and teaching music!


Steve Betts is Professor of Music and Associate Dean of the Shelby and Ferne Collinsworth School of Music at California Baptist University in Riverside, CA. He serves as a managing editor for Clavier Companion and is a contributing author to the Frances Clark Library for Piano Students.